Moral Panic in E14

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

Every once in a while, some Think Tank or other publishes a report (the contents of which it usually takes pains to accept no responsibility for) about the brain / green washing of delicate young minds by politically-motivated teachers and their NGO fellow travellers.  It was no great surprise, therefore, to see the emergence of “Climate Control: brainwashing in schools”, by Andrew Montford and John Shade, published as Report 14 by the Global Warming Policy Foundation [GWPF].   Lord Lawson is the Chair of the GWPF Board of Trustees.  You can find a pdf copy of the report here.  What follow now is  the Executive Summary   ...

We have found examples of serious errors, misleading claims, and bias through inadequate treatment of climate issues in school teaching materials.  These include many widely-used textbooks, teaching-support resources, and pupil projects.

We find instances of eco-activism being given a free rein within schools and at the events schools encourage their pupils to attend.  In every case of concern, the slant is on scares, on raising fears, followed by the promotion of detailed guidance on how pupils should live, as well as on what they should think.  In some instances, we find encouragement to create ‘little political activists’ in schools by creating a burden of responsibility for action on their part to ‘save the planet’, not least by putting pressure on their parents.

The National Curriculum has recently been reviewed by the government, but the proposed changes seem unlikely to prevent such practices.

Surveys show that many children are upset and frightened by what they are told is happening to the climate.

Teachers and administrators have a fairly free hand to choose textbooks, other materials, visiting speakers and school trips for pupils provided they fit in with curricular goals.  This raises the risk that some may select alarming and politically loaded sources in order to win children over to the ‘environmental cause’.  This ‘cause’ is often presented through the notion of ‘sustainability’, a poorly-defined catchword covering political and personal actions for which fundamental criticism is rarely entertained [Note 1].  Many campaigning NGOs and other organisations with vested interests such as energy companies proffer teaching materials and other resources for use in schools.  Some of it is presumably being used.

There are clear grounds for very serious concern.  We therefore call upon the Secretary of State for Education and his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to undertake urgent inquiries into climate change education in our schools.  Only a systematic evaluation of what is going on can determine the extent of the indoctrination as well as the emotional and educational harm to pupils that is undoubtedly resulting.

Strong stuff.  The DfES has played a straight bat to this, reiterating what has, more or less, been the policy of successive governments:

“Ministers are clear that the new national curriculum must equip young people with the core knowledge they need to understand the weather, climate, the earth’s atmosphere, physical geography and the interaction between nature and the environment.  That means in both science and geography, pupils must learn the facts and processes which underpin public discussion of climate change.  They must be equipped with the scientific knowledge to make their own judgments about political responses.  They must not be directed towards a particular campaigning agenda.  Schools should not teach that a particular political or ideological point of view is right – indeed it is against the law for them to do so.  Great care should be exercised to make sure information provided to students is scientifically rigorous.  It is important that any material used in the classroom is rooted in science, not driven by the aims of a campaign.”

So, what's to be said about all this – as little as possible, I'd suggest, as the approach the authors take is hardly scholarly.  However, here are a few comments:

  1. The notion that schools are hot beds of climate change activism and proselytising, as is implied, is such rubbish.  Did these people visit any schools, I wonder?   Well, if they did, they are keeping very quiet about it.  
  2. Does some such climate-related activism exist?  Of course it does, often through clubs as much as in the formal curriculum, though the notion that it's always proselytising, is risible.  And do some NGOs encourage and enable all this?  Of course, although they are always complaining how little effect their efforts have.  Given the sincerely held concerns of teachers and youngsters, it would be very surprising if a major social issue of the day were not considered.
  3. Of course the world is full of (educational) materials and resources that some consider tendentious or biased – this report, many might well think, is an excellent case in point.  But teachers are skilled at using such materials to present open-minded lessons where students are asked to make their own judgements.
  4. Have some schools mis-used the morally-ambiguous idea of pester power?  Yes, undoubtedly some have, and it is clearly no business of schools to use pupils to change parents habits and behaviours.  Does a lot of this go on?  Well, if it does, where's the evidence?  Not in this report, certainly.  NB,  A 7-year old child of my acquaintance recently wrote to her local council (via her school) asking for better play equipment in the Borough (for 7/8/9 year-olds, of course).  Is that pester power?  Or is it good experience of what active citizens should do – as well as being good practice in writing letters?

All this said, there is a case for knowing more about what goes on in schools about how these important issues are approached, and it's a pity that this report didn't add to our understanding of actual practice.  So, should we welcome the call to Mr Gove to have a systematic evaluation of what schools do in relation to climate change and sustainability more generally?  I'd say an emphatic "Yes please" – as we'd likely find just how little of it goes on, and be in a better position to argue for more.  Will Mr G do this?  Not on your life!


1. A footnote to the Exec Summary  says: "Despite many criticisms existing. See for example Beckermann W, ’Sustainable development’: Is it a useful concept? Environmental Values 1994, 3, 191–209."

2. The report have several on-line appendices here.  I confess not to have read them all.




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